Books I read in December (and a bit of November)

2012-11-25 Sun Firefly Summer by Maeve Binchy. From the
library. Well-written best-seller about two families in a small Irish

2012-11-26 Mon Norah Ephron Imaginary Friends, play about Mary
McCarthy and Lillian Hellman. Probably better in the theater. From
the library – just after Ephron died they got a whole bunch of stuff
by her.

2012-12-08 Sat Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, the latest in the
Barrayaran series by Lois McMaster Bujold. (bought from Baen) Brilliant – the last
Miles plot seemed to be mining a very exhausted vein, but this one
builds on the best of the earlier ones, and has both coming of age and
dealing with middle-age aspects.

2012-12-10 Mon Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy. From the library.
More warm-hearted middle-aged to elderly females fixing the world’s
problems for the well-meaning young.

2012-12-13 Thu The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. Got on sale
from Amazon after recommendation by Cory Doctorow (I think). Police
procedural set against the impending crash into earth of an asteroid.
Good but not gripping.

I took most of an afternoon to revive my procedure for stripping DRM
from Kindle books. Most of it was because of how decrepit my
Thinkpad is. The answer turned out to be that you need current
versions of Kindle for PC, Calibre, the drm removing tools, and the
python library the tools depend on. Then you have to realize that for
that format of Kindle, Calibre can read it, and convert it, but the
ebook viewer can’t display it. So you should convert it to epub and
read that. Or ignore big sales on Kindle books.

2012-12-24 Mon Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks, from the
library. Some of the methodology reminds me of the story about how
much senility increased in the UK after Margaret Thatcher’s
resignation as Prime Minister. One of their methods of determining
whether someone was senile was to ask them who the Prime Minister
was. Obviously, more people knew when it had been the same person for
15 years than when it had only been a few months. There are a couple of
hallucination stories that seem to be similar to that. There’s a man
whose cat had to go to the vets for a few days. While the cat was
gone, the man would hallucinate that he saw it walking across the
living room. Sacks says that the hallucination stopped when the cat
got home, but how does he know? Some of the cats walking across the
living room might have been hallucinations, but you wouldn’t
investigate that if your cat was at home and might perfectly well have
been going to the litter box.

A common form of auditory hallucination is to hear something that
sounds like a radio left on in another room. If you live in a
single-family home on a quiet street, you get up and go to all the
rooms with radios to see which one was left on and to turn it off.
But if you live in an apartment building on a noisy street, you hear
other people’s radios all the time. Some of them might be
hallucinations, but how would you tell?

My methodology quibble aside, I think it’s a good book. One
stated purpose is to make people more comfortable thinking about
(and maybe talking about) their neurological idiosyncrasies, and I
think it achieves that. I discussed it at dinner with two friends,
and it turned out that two of us have the visual hallucinations
before going to sleep and the third had no idea what we were
talking about.

2012-12-25 Tue Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley. I think it was his
first novel. I read it in high school, or possibly college, and
haven’t looked at it since, so I was surprised how vividly I
remembered some of the better bits. There are good reasons why I
haven’t reread it – the stuff between the good bits is very talky,
and mostly about issues that don’t concern me much, although certainly
it’s of historic interest how casually people in a Huxley novel
published in 1922 advocated ideas that we would label fascist.

2012-12-25 Tue Finished Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson. I’ve
been reading this off and on between a lot of the above – it works
best a chapter at a time. It’s fascinating but a little bit
disappointing. We really don’t think about how much of late 20th
century technological change was fueled by World War II. He leaves
out the antibiotics, but everything easily related to computers is
mentioned. (bombs, weather prediction, stellar evolution, biological

But with a better editor or co-author, it could have been a better
book. Dyson doesn’t really explain anything they way the great
popular science books of the mid-twentieth century did. If you don’t
already know a lot about any of these subjects, you will come away
from the book with a vague idea about how general-purpose computers
helped develop them, and some interesting facts about the biographies
of the people who did the developing, but you still won’t know much
about the subject.

2012-12-28 Fri Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier. I think I got
this from Gutenberg because someone wrote an essay about it in the NY
Times Book Review. You can see why someone who studies how people
write novels would find it interesting, that someone would have done
something that much like stream of consciousness in 1915. But it’s
really quite unpleasant. I thought about dropping it several times,
but somehow kept on to see how the throat-cutting came about.

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